TT: When Nick’s Not a Name

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and join me on the race to a deadline.  Then come back and watch as I put Alan on the spot regarding his attitude regarding nicknames!

Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

JANE: Alan, I really liked your review of  Steve Gould’s new novel Impulse, but what’s your hang-up about nicknames?

ALAN: I’m not really hung up about nicknames, but I am very hung up about abbreviating real names. In the novel, David is consistently called Dave. His wife Millicent and his daughter Millicent are known as Millie and Cent respectively. It’s fair enough in the context of the novel, particularly to separate mother from daughter, but it can get annoying in real life. My name is Alan – I refuse to answer to Al. Nevertheless I’m often called that by people who don’t know me and who just assume that Al is a valid abbreviation of my name.

JANE: But I keep thinking of Brits who are known by shortened versions of their given names (which you particularly seem to dislike).  Mick Jagger.  Ronnie Wood.  Davy Jones.

ALAN: I can only assume Michael,  Ronald and David prefer their abbreviated name to their full one. Others with those names would not.  I belong to a technical mailing list where people ask for advice on computer related problems. One recent email began: “Hi Mike, Can you help me with…”

The reply was: “1. My name is Michael, please use it. 2. The answer to your question is…”

JANE: So is it a personal quirk or a cultural thing? Are you –  and Michael –  over-reacting?

ALAN: It’s both personal and cultural. The culture requires personal preferences to be taken into account. It is regarded as the height of bad manners to address people by a shortened version of their name if the person doesn’t like it. The American assumption that a person can always be addressed by an abbreviation of their name is considered extremely rude.

JANE: Whoa!  I think you’re over-reaching when you say this is an “American assumption.”

ALAN: Possibly so. But the people who call me Al (until I ask them to stop) are all American. I have never been called Al by a non-American.

JANE: Still, I think you’re over-generalizing by saying this is an “American” trait.  Several parents I know (including siblings), stressed that their young children were to be called by the full version of their names.  Daniel was not to be “Danny.”  Christopher was not to be “Chris.”  Andrew was not to be “Drew” and especially not “Andy.”

ALAN: Doesn’t the fact that you are specifically asked to use full names suggest that the habit of abbreviating them is quite common? Why else would the parents feel the need to make the point?

JANE: No.  I don’t think so.  It’s relatively common to call children by diminutives in many cultures.  I think this was more stressing that full names, not diminutives, were preferred.

This reminds me…  This past summer, I met up for the first time in forever with a woman – also named Jane – I’d known when we were both kids.   Back then, every social occasion we met started with her announcing: “I’m older, so I’m Jane, you’re Janie.”  Now that we were adults, I decided to ask her about this declaration.

She laughed and said that she’d always been called “Janie” (her middle initial began with “E” so she was doubly doomed) and hated it.  She guessed that this re-naming of me and asserting her “Jane-ness” had been a way of escaping it.

ALAN: Oh, what a lovely story! I’m on her side.

JANE: I’m certainly on her side regarding asserting her right to her “proper” name, but why did she need to pass a name she hated on to me?

Anyhow, more seriously,  it seems to me that shortened names are common to both cultures – and so is resistance.  What differs is when it is appropriate for a person to use them.

ALAN: Yes, indeed, and it always comes down to individual taste. Many English forenames can be abbreviated or modified – many Williams are called Bill, many Roberts are called Bob and Elizabeth is often Liz. Margaret can be Maggie or Peggy (or Peg). There are lots of others as well.

JANE: We use those same abbreviations.  However, you’d be incorrect if you assumed that they were always abbreviations.  My mother-in-law is “Peggy” – not Margaret.  And my sister-in-law is “Beth” – not short for Elizabeth.  I have a friend who is “Chris” – not Christopher or Christian.

ALAN: Absolutely – sometimes they aren’t abbreviations at all. I’ve observed the same thing here.

But you should never assume that just because a name *can* be abbreviated, that it *should* be abbreviated. Many Elizabeths point blank refuse to answer to Liz and many Roberts would be highly offended if you called them Bob. The only safe ploy is to use the name by which the person is introduced to you. If they are introduced as Steve, then feel free to call them Steve. But if they are introduced to you as Steven, then Steven is the name you must use.  (Amusingly Steven is commonly abbreviated to Steve. Stephen is almost never abbreviated).

JANE: How do they know how Stephen/ Steven is spelled just by hearing it?  You don’t pronounce them differently do you?

ALAN: No – we don’t pronounce them differently. I think what I’m really saying is that Stephen is more likely to be introduced to you as Stephen whereas Steven may well be introduced as Steve..

And, of course, if you haven’t been introduced to a person, you won’t be speaking to them at all. That would be the height of bad manners. Therefore, the problem of whether or not to abbreviate their name will never arise.

JANE: That amazes me.  Albuquerque is a very friendly city.  We talk to everyone.

ALAN: I’m really not kidding – British people standing in a bus queue or sitting in a train will not talk to each other because they haven’t been introduced. Even if those people see each other every day, year in and year out, they still will not speak. And if you try to talk to someone in the queue with you they are likely to feel quite uncomfortable about it and they will stand in a different place in the queue the next day so as to avoid you.

Yes, you don’t have to say it –  the English are completely barking mad. It’s part of our charm.

JANE: It certainly sounds lonely.  Jim has commuted to Santa Fe from Albuquerque for years.  He has made friends – of the genuine socialize outside of work sort – simply by chatting when commuting.

ALAN: For many years before Robin and I met, I stood in a bus queue with the same people every day. I never spoke to any of them. When Robin and I got together, she started catching the same bus. Robin, being Australian, paid no attention to my silly British habits. Within days she knew everybody’s name and intimate details of their family lives. I was astonished!

JANE: I have made friends by chatting with the clerks at my local grocery store.  I hadn’t realized how much the feeling was mutual until I was sick for several weeks this winter and Jim took over the shopping.  He came home with queries as to where I was and how I was – and when I went in myself it was treated as a minor celebration.  The greengrocer came over and thumped me on the shoulder and said with obvious concern, “You’re okay now?”

I think I’m happy to be American, even at the risk of being called “Janie.”

ALAN: Quite right, too!

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12 Responses to “TT: When Nick’s Not a Name”

  1. Sue Says:

    Names are important, and complicated! Having grown up with a difficult-to-pronounce last name, I always appreciated when someone asked me how to say it properly, instead of just mangling it. Then I got married and acquired a last name that is also a woman’s first name, which can cause confusion and sometimes embarrassment for others when they realize they’ve been calling me by my last name. Living in a state with a large Hispanic population, and working in a school with children from many different cultures has also made me extra sensitive to names and their pronunciations.

    I’m one of those folks who prefer my nickname, Sue — my given name Susan was my “you’re in trouble” name when I was small. A former boss, named Richard, went from mild-mannered dear to purple in the face when folks called him Dick (not that I blamed him!). Neither of my parents liked their given names, which don’t have obvious nicknames and thus had no easy — and possibly less hated — alternatives; they call each other “Dear”. I think because of this, my mom was quite upset that we gave our daughter a name without an obvious nickname, and was forced to make one up for her! I don’t know about the theory that Americans tend to shorten names, but I do see us adding that “-ie” or “-y” to a little one’s name. I was Susie as a child, my brother Bill was Billy. My sister Barb (given name Barbara) lived through years of Barbie jokes and never wanted to hear that “-ie” again. Interestingly, she is Barb to her American family, but Barbara to her Mexican family.

    My mother-in-law was actually christened Margie — it’s on her birth certificate that way — but has gone by Marge most of her adult life. I guess she felt that Margie wasn’t formal enough during her working years.

    Bottom line, I think it’s important to ask people what they want to be called, or ask how to pronounce a name. Alan, I promise never to call you Al! 🙂

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Actually, in my immediate family, names get very complicated. One woman was christened Elisabeth by a mother who hated Lizzie and wanted to make that option impossible. I have a short name that people inevitably think is a contraction of a longer name (in fact, my mother had to tell the doctor when I was born that the short name was, in fact, the one she wanted. Not the longer version).

    And then, there are the four Charleses. That’s Charles, Charlie, Chet, and Chuck to those who know them, except that Charles sometimes goes by Charlie at work, and Charlie sometimes goes by Charles at work. Chuck and Chet are younger, and they got stuck with their names, at least so far.

    I think the ultimately lesson is that, when naming American children, you’ve got to do a couple of things: one is to figure out what the possible nicknames are, and the other is to give the kid a usable middle name, so that if they hate their childhood nicknames, they can go by their middle name, rather than going to the courts and changing their names and thereby alienating their parents.

  3. Hilary Says:

    I agree you should always call people by the name they wish to be called by. I have many friends who go by completely different names than those given to them, and I try to respect their need to name themselves. 🙂

    Then again, I had a friend throughout high school who I called by the shortened version of her name, because that was how she was called by everyone, and only on the first day of our senior year did she turn to me and demand that I call her by her full name because that was her name, not the shortened version. By then I had already gotten into the habit of calling her by the shortened version, and so I forgot on numerous occasions and had to correct myself, which she did not find amusing in the least, even though i swore up and down that I wasn’t trying to be funny or making fun of her, I just was honestly forgetting. Our friendship fizzled out after that.

    I’m terrible with names to begin with, so if someone prefers a certain version they need to correct me before I memorize their name so that’s the one that sticks. I appreciate when people correct me, because I don’t intend to blatantly call them by a name they dislike, and I also try to go out of my way to find out how to say more difficult-to-pronounce names too.

    I myself don’t care what people call me. My nicknames are things like Hil and Hilly, and people often call me by other H-names instead when they can’t remember my name. Actually, my only name related issue is when people spell my name with two Ls. Then I give them an eyeroll. 😛

  4. Paul Says:

    My father (like me) had a one-syllable first name, which would seem to simplify things, but I can only remember him being called by the first syllable of his three-syllable last name. Go figure. I know a couple of folks that I knew when they were much younger, and now must try to remember that “Ricky” and “Bobby” are now “Rick” and “Bob.” Today, a library book club discussed books by Dale Evans (Rogers) who, we learned, had once been married to a movie studio musician named R. Dale Butts. It occurred to me that, had she changed her last name to his, they would both have been named “Dale Butts”!!

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Somehow ironic title, but only to me. Mostly because until I started my current job, I never knew that I cared about being called “Nick”. Now that most of my co-worked use it, I’ve realized I do care. To me at least, you have to earn that right. You have to be a friend, someone I really trust, before you can be that personal with me.

    Which leaves me in a little bit of a bind. Five years later, and I can’t feel like I can suddenly step up and say, “okay, except for you, you, you, you, you, you, you, and you, I don’t want anyone calling me Nick.” That said, I don’t let customers off the hook that easy. They call me Nick, I politely say, “Nicholas please”.

  6. Chris Says:

    I am in the opposite situation. My dad didn’t believe in giving long names and calling people by something else. As Chris, I have the longest name of me and my sibs–and I don’t answer to Christopher.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    I’m very much enjoying this! Thus far I think our respondents are all from the American (United States) side, so Alan’s getting a real window into Americana!

  8. Chad Merkley Says:

    In regards to nicknames, I once heard my dad quip, “My name is Dave, but my friends call me David.”

  9. Louis Robinson Says:

    One interesting thing about nicknames is that they either don’t take hold at all, or people won’t let go. My #2 is occasionally called Vero by her sibs, but not routinely. I’ll sometimes use it in texts, since it’s easier to type than Veronica, but otherwise we don’t use nicknames at all. OTOH, I may be the only person in North America who doesn’t call my nephew Scotty. As far as I’m concerned a Scotty is either yapping at your heels or used for blowing your nose [Scotties was a trademark of the Scott Paper Company], _not_ a 22-year old university student, but no one else sees it that way, not even his cousins.

    More generally, I think that the mangling of given names is a cultural thing. A lot of people instead use nicknames that, if not actually descriptive, have no apparent relation to given name. Others, like Russians, have a regular system for creating diminutives of first names, but they have also, at least in the past, codified the _use_ of those diminutives as part of an entire set of modes of address.

    And of course, particularly in North America, immigrants may adopt nicknames out of self defense: if a Persian or Chinese says that their name is Nick or Fran or Charlie or Betsy, it isn’t. It’s simply what they want to hear instead of whatever it is you do to their real names 🙂

    • janelindskold Says:

      Your last bit paragraph is true — but only to a point. It’s certainly the case with my doctor (who is American of Vietnamese extraction) and with the two Cantonese sisters who run our favorite Chinese place.

      However, my dad had a good friend named Nancy. Chinese heritage. Born in Texas. Her name was — Nancy.

  10. CBI Says:

    We ensured that our own kids, especially the girls, had names which would easily be formal/professional and would also have a euphonic short form. The only one that throws people at time is Alexandra, who almost universally goes by “Sasha”.

    In the American South, it is also common for girls (especially) to be known by double-names: Mary Jo, Beth Ann, Betty Jean, Mary Carol, etc. Sometimes the names are combined: one college classmate’s given name is Georgeann. When we lived in the Piney Woods of East Texas growing up, my sisters would not rarely be called by double names (e.g., Janet Kay), but that pretty well ceased when we moved to the cold country of Michigan. I suspect that there are other regional variations in custom.

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